How to Shop for Antique Furniture


Photo by Jaap Joris from Flickr

The United States is such a young country that we Americans have a skewed idea of what constitutes an antique.

our perception of time is further obscured by shops that say they sell antiques but actually sell things like Depression glass, vinyl records, and rotary phones.  Basically, what you might find in your grandmother’s house.

While those things can be fascinating, they are not antiques.

An antique is an item that’s at least 100 years old.  That’s not an industry standard or a rule of thumb.  It’s a law. (Source: Federal Trade Commission).

So, an antique is something you’re likely to find in your grandmother’s grandmother’s house.

Most of the items we mentioned above fall into the category of vintage collectibles.  That’s an item that’s at least 50 years old.  Then there are collectibles.  Collectibles could have been made yesterday but they refer to anything that can be collected.

There is nothing wrong with buying collectibles or vintage collectibles.  If you like what you see and you think it’s a good value, then by all means buy it.  Just remember, you’re not buying an antique.

What about buying antiques then?  Have we scared you off?  Hopefully not, because buying antiques can be an enjoyable and profitable experience.

Why Antique Furniture? 

Buying antique furniture is a great way to make a dynamic statement in your home and with the internet it can be quite easy.  Before we talk about buying antique furniture on the internet we should probably answer another big question.

Why antique furniture?

“Why buy something old when I can go to that big-box Scandinavian retailer and buy something new, for the fraction of the price?”

Here are some reasons to buy antique furniture:

  • If you do your homework (and since you’re reading this article, you are), antique furniture can be an investment. There are no guarantees but antique furniture holds, and sometimes increases, its value over time.
  • They are green. You’re not consuming new resources but continuing to use old ones.  If you take care of the furniture, there’s no reason it can’t last another 100 years.
  • They are unique. Antique furniture was not mass-produced.  Even if there’s another one like it, since they are handmade they are not exactly alike.  They have history and some even have the scars and wear to prove it.
  • They make great accent pieces. Regardless of your design aesthetics, you can always add a piece of antique furniture to your décor.
  • They are built to last. Remember that Scandinavian retailer we mentioned earlier?  You think the furniture they sell today will be around in 100 years?  Probably not.  But most antique furniture is built to last and will be with us for a long time.

Antiques and the Internet

It wasn’t too long ago that if you wanted to buy antique furniture you had to go to an antique store.   While this allowed you the opportunity to examine the furniture, you were at the mercy of their inventory.

Obviously, the internet changed all that.  Now, you don’t have to settle for what’s in your local antique store.  You can choose antique furniture from dealers all over the world.

Not only that, but the internet allows you to compare prices. If you’re lucky enough to find multiples of the item you want, you can purchase the one that’s easiest on the wallet.

The internet does present some challenges for antique hunters however.  The biggest challenge is judging the condition of the furniture through images alone.


Hopefully, the piece you find is well photographed.  Depending on the type of antique furniture you’re looking at, you’ll want to see close-up images of the hardware, backside, underside, inside drawers, and the backside of doors.  If those types of images aren’t provided you should ask for them.  Make a point to contact the dealer directly.

Questions to Ask

That leads us to our next topic.  You know you’re going to ask questions, but what kind of questions do you ask?

Here’s a list of questions you should consider asking when buying a particular piece of antique furniture.

  • How old is the piece?  The most important question you can ask is, “what’s the piece’s age?”  Again, if it’s made in 1950s, it’s not an antique.  If the seller doesn’t know the age of an item, be very cautious.
  • Has the piece every been repaired?  You’ll want to know if the piece of antique furniture has ever been repaired, changed, or if any of the parts have been replaced.  This not only helps you know what you’re buying, but it’s also a good way to gauge the seller’s honesty and knowledge.
  • Is the piece of furniture working properly?  If it has drawers, do the drawers open and close smoothly?  If it has doors, do they open and close like they should?  Do the drawers and/or doors close tight?  If the furniture is a chair or couch, ask if it’s comfortable to sit in and how high the seat is from the floor.
  • How big is the piece of antique furniture?  Ask for measurements.  Size is a very hard thing to convey through images.
  • How will the antique furniture be packaged and shipped?
  • What is the seller’s return policy?  If the seller has one, don’t use it as an excuse not to do your homework. Don’t buy a piece of antique furniture on the assumption that if you don’t like it, you can just return it.  A seller’s return policy should be used as a last resort.  When you buy something, assume you’re going to keep it.

The seller should be willing to answer all of your questions.  They probably selected the piece of antique furniture you’re looking at for a very good reason, and they will want to tell you everything they know about it.

Be leery if a seller seems annoyed or unwilling to answer your questions.  While they could just be lazy, they could also be trying to sell you something that isn’t an antique or something that isn’t what the images and descriptions make it appear to be.


Provenance is the earliest history or origin of something.  In the antique world, provenance can be historical records, auction house documents, appraisals, and/or sales receipts.

Usually, only high end or rare furniture comes with provenance, but it is something you should know about.  You’ll want provenance in order to resell or insure the item.  At the very least, the dealer should tell you the country of origin and the approximate age of your purchase.  This information should also be included on their invoice.

Shipping Costs

The internet makes it possible for you to buy from antique dealers all over the world, but to get your purchase, it will have to be shipped to you — and that will add to the cost.

If you absolutely love the piece, then the shipping costs will definitely be worth it.  In most cases, the dealer will have relationships with reliable shippers and can arrange delivery for you, making the process as easy and reliable as possible.  Always ask if insurance for the full purchase price is included.

Another good option is to “shop by location.”  Sites like eBay, Etsy, 1stdibs, and Invaluable allow you to search for antique furniture from sellers situated near you.  If you buy from them, you can pick up the furniture yourself and avoid shipping costs.

Buying Options

Some sellers offer buyers the opportunity to purchase an item on an “approval” basis.  This will allow you a certain amount of time to receive, inspect, and decide whether or not you want to keep or return an item (as long as it is in the same condition).  You will be expected to pay for shipping and, if you decide to pass, the return of the piece.

If you go this route, make sure you get everything in writing.

What to Buy

Now that you know how to buy antiques, you need to know what to buy.  It goes without saying that your personal tastes will lead you to a piece of antique furniture.  Beyond that, how do you decide what to spend your money on?

There are many ways to learn more about antique furniture.

  • Your local antique store. Even though they may not have what you want, your local antique store will probably be more than happy to answer your questions.  Just make sure you visit them when they’re slow.
  • Antique shows. Like your local antique store, an antique show is a great place to go to pick the brains of experts.  People who are into antiques love to talk about them.
  • The internet. The internet is a great resource for learning more about antique furniture, especially a site like  Don’t forget message boards, forums and chat rooms as well.
  • Countless books have been written about antique furniture.  Many of these books are dedicated to antiques from a particular country or geographical area.For example, if you’re interested in Swedish furniture there’s Scandinavian Design by Lars Bolander, Reflections on Swedish Interiors by Rhonda Eleish and Edie van Breems, and The Swedish Room by Francis Lincoln.
  • Attend an antique class. It’s common for community centers and colleges to offer classes in antiques.  Even if they don’t focus on antique furniture, an organized class is a good place to start your education.


It may seem like it will take you a hundred years to learn how to buy antiques.  While the subject is vast enough to keep you learning for the rest of your life, buying antiques is not as difficult as you may fear.

If you use common sense, contact the  dealer to ask questions, and trust your aesthetic, you should have no problem finding and buying a wonderful piece of antique furniture that will bring you joy for years to come.  And if you really do your homework, you’ll also be making a sound investment.